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Story Publication logo September 11, 2015

Rio's Olympic Inequality Problem


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Thomas Bach, current president of the International Olympic Committee, addressed a small gathering on August 5 in Barra da Tijuca's Cidade das Artes to mark the yearlong countdown to the opening of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

His effusive speech praised the efforts of the organizers, highlighted the offerings of the city, and detailed all of the socioeconomic benefits the Olympic Games would bring, calling it "the most inclusive Olympic Games ever." Such rhetoric, however, fell flat across the rest of the city. There are signs all around, including a corruption scandal and an economic downturn with no relief in sight, that infrastructure investment for the Games will not reach those who need it most and is largely benefiting those who already sit on the favorable side of one of the largest wealth gaps in the world.

The core facilities for the Games are being built from scratch in Barra da Tijuca, an affluent district in the far west of Rio de Janeiro. It is a 45-minute drive from downtown, but often takes hours thanks to growing citywide traffic congestion. Once a large swamp fronted by broad beaches, Barra da Tijuca was largely shaped by Lúcio Costa, best known for the Pilot Plan that structured Brasilia—a design many felt catered to the needs of cars rather than people. He was commissioned to fabricate a similar modernist urban plan for Barra da Tijuca in 1969. The municipal government hoped the district would become a new center for Rio de Janeiro and major transportation links were subsequently built to connect it to the rest of the city.

But not everything came together as planned. The beachfront and broad avenues laid out by Costa eventually framed a jumble of residential complexes, shopping malls, and business centers. Developers transformed Barra da Tijuca into a gated, consumer-driven, vehicular-oriented suburb—a stark contrast from the more concentrated and lively street life so often associated with the rest of Rio de Janeiro.

The cordoned wealthy who live in Barra da Tijuca are not even called "Cariocas," a common term used to denote residents of Rio de Janeiro. Instead, the "Barristas" enjoy a lifestyle far removed from the rest of the city, including over a million people who reside in favelas that often lack access to clean water and sewage systems. Those in greatest need of basic amenities are nowhere near the biggest Olympic infrastructure investments in Rio de Janeiro.

"The modernist city doesn't have space for the poor," says Clarisse Cunha Linke, Brazil Country Director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). "Barra is the most emblematic or iconic example of a disaster, of a modernist city that is worse than Brasilia."

A handful of real estate tycoons stand to make a lot of money off the 2016 Games, including the billionaire Carlos Carvalho, who invested heavily in the Olympic Village. He plans eventually to turn the residential towers into luxury apartments. Dubbing the development Ilha Pura, ("Island of Purity"), Carvalho declared that he wants the compound to become "a city of the elite of good taste" in a recent Guardian story. No provisions for mixed income housing are expected, and although the BRT system being built for the Olympic Village and Park will eventually cater to laborers commuting long distances to the Barra da Tijuca, it hardly casts the Olympic legacy in Rio de Janeiro as one that embodies real inclusivity.

This lack of inclusiveness is being felt most in Vila Autodromo, a small neighborhood on the edge of the Olympic Park in Barra Da Tijuca. Residents there are being forcibly evicted from their homes in order to make way for the expanding Olympic facilities. Although compensation and nearby alternative housing was offered, many do not want to leave a community they've called home for decades and feel their land rights are being violated. Holdouts remain in Vila Autodromo despite violent clashes with police.

Similar tensions are starting to flare throughout the rest of the city, especially as anger grows over the Petrobras corruption scandal that continues to expand and may lead to impeachment proceedings against Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. The fiasco embroils 20 major construction companies accused of inflating costs to use for political kickbacks, five of which are building the bulk of the infrastructure and stadiums for the Games. One of the biggest, OAS, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year and along with others are receiving temporary loans from the municipal government while their assets are held up in the investigation. Rio de Janeiro, already grossly behind in preparations for the Olympic Games, can't afford to slow down even more.

Organizers and politicians in Rio de Janeiro are struggling to keep the sinking Olympic ship afloat, but the first commitments being thrown overboard are those that could benefit the greater public most, like promises to upgrade sewage systems and clean up waterways that lead to beaches, lagoons, and bays. This missed opportunity also appears to be putting the health of Olympic athletes in jeopardy. Instead, the biggest infrastructure investments coming to fruition are in Barra da Tijuca. Many parallels can be drawn to the handling of the World Cup in Brazil last summer, where stadiums that enriched private interests were completed while other public infrastructure upgrades for host cities were left unfinished.

The battle over the narrative for the Olympic Games in Rio is just beginning for many. The media spotlight will only grow larger leading up to next summer. Theresa Williamson, founder of Catalytic Communities, launched a campaign to support the first favela wire service, @RioONWire, to highlight perspectives from disenfranchised communities isolated from mainstream media. Williamson explains, "If you are a journalist coming here for a few weeks before the Olympics, you can get up to speed with what's happening right now, the background on those particular stories, and who you can interview. We basically make it very easy for reporters to hit the ground running and produce good, nuanced reporting."

The underlying humanitarian mission associated with the Olympic Games will provide a unique platform to address entrenched social issues within the city. Pressure is mounting to confront glaring holes in developmental policy, or at the very least, start improving the quality of outcomes for those communities who most need the infrastructure improvements being doled out.

When the opening of the Games occurs next summer, chances are Rio de Janeiro will still come together as a city for the rest of the world. There's much to celebrate in the Cidade Maravilhosa. But for now the marvelousness continues to be skin deep. The entire Olympic buildup oddly resembles the failures of the modernist agenda in Brazil and how it manifested in places like Barra da Tijuca since its developmental inception. It might have looked great on the drawing board, but socioeconomic complexities and needs were never really addressed, often at the expense of those most in need.

The Olympic legacy instead might end up resembling the beautiful Cidade das Artes, the architectural centerpiece of Barra da Tijuca, where Thomas Bach just hosted Brazil's embattled political elite. It's a gem of a building, celebrating the great cultural and artistic legacy of Rio de Janeiro, but the heavily guarded complex sits smack in the middle of a traffic vortex cut off from the rest of the city. It doesn't maximize its service to the greater public due to its placement and lack of inclusiveness. Another great opportunity lost, especially in a city that needs a respite from its constant battle to improve quality of life for its residents.


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